If anything, both Atomic Blonde and John Wick Chapter 2 prove that the director duo of the original John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, are both capable directors in their own right, and easily the most promising action filmmakers to come out of America since…shit, I don’t even know. So, in comes Atomic Blonde, the second film directed by David Leitch, and written by Kurt Johnstad, who is adapting the graphic novel, The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. The film follows MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who is on a mission in Berlin during the tail end of the cold war where she has to recover a missing list of double agents and investigate the death of an undercover MI6 agent.
First things first, this is not “John Wick, but with a woman,” it’s a disservice to pretty good film, and it is not even the same kind of film John Wick is. If you’re expecting lean and relentless action like John Wick, Atomic Blonde is not going to satisfy you. It is an espionage thriller at its core. It takes its time, it’s moody, and it plays with the spy tropes with a certain glee. The action alone isn’t stylized, but the world is. It’s a very heightened version of our world, capturing the chaos, grunginess, and moral murkiness at the eve of the collapse of the Berlin wall, and the apprehension between the superpowers behind it but cranked up to 11. The actions taken by the Lorraine never seem to directly involve the collapse of the Berlin wall, but presence of it is felt, and it gives you the feeling that there are much bigger things at stake, even if it isn’t really addressed upfront.
The film is admittedly rather convoluted, but no more so than your average spy film. Certain moments and reveals do cross the line into ridiculousness, but given how heightened the world seems to be presented, it manages to work just fine. It sucks you in, and makes you buy things from moment to moment, and the connective tissue doesn’t really fall apart until you start thinking about them after the movie is over. It’s all about hidden agendas, secret alliances, betrayals, and cryptic deals. The true nature of every character is unclear from the get-go, recreating that cold war paranoia on a smaller, more intimate scale. Though, I certainly could’ve done without the flashback framing device.
Charlize Theron is utterly captivating, and magnificent in the kind of stone cold killer role typically reserved for men. She is understated within a world that is soaked in neon and blasting classic 80s New Wave hits, but it’s damn near impossible to take your eyes off her, especially once the action starts. James McAvoy also shines as David Percival, a Berlin station chief who is her main contact when she reaches the city. He balances eccentricity with a vague secrecy in his eyes; done in a way that only McAvoy could really pull off. The rest of the cast is filled with reliable character actors such as Toby Jones, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, as well as Sofia Boutella as a mysterious French operative. Everyone is rock solid, but it’s ultimately the Charlize Theron show through and through.
While some might be deterred by the complicated plotting, the one thing that can’t be taken away is how well done the action is. David Leitch brings the same level of energy and brutality that made the John Wick films so instantly memorable. Emphasizing lighting, choreography, and the environment to set up each action beat to be as visually striking as possible, but never losing the vulnerable humanity and struggle for survival behind each punch, and kick. And while all the action scenes are more than great, one in particular that happens somewhere around the halfway point is an immediate all-time classic, easily one of the most visceral, engaging, and technically marvelous fight scenes I’ve experienced in a very long time. You will know it when you see it.
Atomic Blonde may not reach the heights that John Wick and John Wick 2 reaches, but it doesn’t have to. It is very much doing its own thing and has different ideas in mind. It has a unique flavor of attitude, sleaze, subversion, and pulpy playfulness that sets it apart, not only from the John Wick films, but most action films in general. It manages to feel like a proper 80s throwback, while also being very modern and progressive. The needlessly convoluted plotting is there, for sure, but it feels forgivable in the grand scheme of things. It features Charlize Theron cementing herself as an instant action icon, and one of the best fight sequences ever put to screen. It’s one of the most effortlessly coolest films of the year, and a total audiovisual delight. If David Leitch (and Chad Stahelski for that matter) continue to do work that is this good – or better – then we might some seriously great things to look forward to. Hell, David’s next film is Deadpool 2, and God help me, I’m actually kind of curious to see what he does with it.